Monday, September 30, 2013

The State of Dungeons & Dragons

On Friday I wrote a post that sounded like a justification for quitting D&D.  Earlier today I wrote a post explaining at least one reason why I might stop, but in the bigger sense I ended the post with the proposition that the game could be replaced with something else.

And a couple of weeks ago I wrote a post that included this:

"That, I think, is because in the beginning, WAY back in the 70s, everyone who ran D&D was shit at it ... Everyone. Was. Shit. The game had been around for just a few years, there had been no quality control at all, no one had had much practice, and it wasn't even conceived that there could be such a thing as a railroad/non-railroad philosophy. People ran completely grab-ass because they hadn't gotten the hang of it, and for those people who were really important, for whom smoke was blown up their ass everyday from the beginning because they were the founders of the game, that grab-ass style became acceptable, even dogmatically acceptable."

I just can't get this out of my head.  I think I had a true moment there ... I hadn't planned to write the paragraph, it just poured out of me, like the application of a cognitive Ouija Board, where my mind was in one place and my fingers in another.  Writing is often like that.

People defend D&D.  They don't play the same edition, they don't play the same way, they can't agree on alignment or method of play or sixteen hundred other contentious issues, but the amorphous ill-defined concept, that they defend.  I think what I've been getting at is to question what it is, exactly, that is being defended?

I've said it commonly to my players of late that if D&D had been invented today - the basic idea, I mean - that there's a very good chance that it wouldn't have dice.  It certainly wouldn't be based upon pen and paper, and I doubt greatly that there would be 'miniatures' associated with play.  The young, who would take up this new game in 2013, are far too indoctrinated into software to bother with such physical nonsense.  Generate a random number between 1 and 20?  Sure, that's no problem, my phone will do that.

With the picture of a die rolling across the screen?  What the fuck for?

This perspective will matter greatly in the next ten years ... those same years when you, the gentle reader, are SURE you'll still be playing the game.  But what game, exactly?

Take a look at the state of Dungeons and Dragons, right now.  A clear, clean look, without the emotional context that seeing the image of a die rolling across your cellphone generates.  Examine closely the content of the game, as it appears in blogs, as it appears in the company that presumes to direct the game, or in the companies that challenge D&D with other fantasy-dependent content.  Where are we, what have we become?  What do we talk about?

The Past.  This used to make up at least 90% of everything I saw on blogs.  Books people liked, games people liked, war stories that took place in games people liked, art people liked, the Dragon Magazine ... and of course, modules and more modules.  Hell, that's all Grognardia would talk about.  It's no wonder he screwed people on the Kickstarter he proposed, that depended on something happening in the future, and Grognardia did not live in the future.  His peculiar talent was pouring sweet, preserving honey in a thick layer over everything that had ever been written about the game.

Yes, people prize things.  Sentiment is a powerful human emotion and must be acknowledged.  In this era, however, when materialism is so much better protected by the houses and lifestyles we live, we've come to recognize culturally that there comes a point when too much sentimentality leads to ... well, to fetishism.

All this stuff that's been gathered.  The folders bulging with art on your computer, the shelves full of miniatures and modules, the fantasy literature filling up the boxes in your storeroom, the little bits and pieces of how many years you've been participating in Cons and cherished moments in gaming stores ... pause and look around you, and try to lift yourself out of your deep, visceral dopamine-fueled tearfulness, if only you can ask for once in your life, what does any of this have to do with the game you play NOW?

Are you really keeping all those modules because you can't wait to pull them down again and play them, or is it that you can't imagine throwing any of them away?  Do you really think, after two decades, that there's still content you're going to magically pull out of those oh-so-familiar 32 pages?  Will there be in another decade?  Even if there isn't, admit it - to yourself, at least, if to no one else - there are so many bits of stuff there that have ceased to be of value to the game.  Totally.

Oh, keep them if you must; but can't you see that in some way, returning to them again and again has begun to cripple your ability to think anew?  You have piled someone else's creative design upon your brain in an immense heap, magazine by magazine, and now all you have is thought that isn't yours - that has never been yours - cluttering up the halls and rooms of your imagination.  How long as it been that you've been truly forced to think?  How much easier is it to just pull down old module #81 down from the third shelf, the one you remember perfectly, it had the fire giant and the magic glove and ... where is your contribution?  You're proud that you can re-adapt it, again?  That's all your contribution is, after all.  Screwing in the module-preform light bulb.  Now really fast, now really slow.  What a marvelous imagination you have.

I have a few Dragons on a shelf somewhere.  Last time I found them, I couldn't see a single idea inside that I could imagine using.  I'd moved past what those magazines could offer.  I did not even think the way those magazines wanted me to think as a DM.

So I contrived an idea for a video I could put on you tube.  I wanted to hold one of those Dragon Magazines on cam (Issue #198, I think it is), talk about it a bit, talk about how meaningless it all was to me.  How the content was derivative and pass√© and how anything that had been there once had long been incorporated into my thought process.  Finally, I would talk about how I couldn't understand why I even kept the thing.  Then I'd cross the room on camera, open the mesh in front of my fireplace, where there'd be a fire burning, and toss the magazine in.

There's a couple reasons I never did it.  There's the whole anti-book burning thing.  People get worked up about that, they don't even care what's being burnt.  But mostly it was that I didn't feel most viewers would be mature enough to get the point.  And if you're not making your point, what's it all for?  So I abandoned the idea.

I'd feel more angst having to go through the process of finding one of those damn magazines than I'd feel actually burning one.  I don't know where the hell the things are now.

The past, for all the good feelings it offers, is a mess of smothering blankets.  They pile one upon another until there's nothing to be seen except blankets, blotting out the present and the future.  Yes, they're soft.  They smell lovely.  You sink and sink in contentment ... until you asphyxiate.

There's less of it on the web, however; many of the blogs and writers who were the greatest fetishists have ceased to blog at all, now.  They've been replaced by a new breed, who ...

Reinvent the Wheel.  This is all the WOTC does.  This is their entire business plan, and well we know it.  Their most recent incarnation of the game, Next, is a brilliant demonstration of rethinking at its highest level.  Having hundreds (thousands?) of game testers is a great way to encourage fickle, uncommitted customers to buy your game, but it is demonstrably a really crappy way to innovate anything.  But that's fine, because the last thing WOTC wants is to create a definitive wheel.  D&D Next can be soon followed by D&D After and D&D Later On, breaking new ground for D&D Once Again, D&D Yet Again and eventually D&D Last ... to be offered by CEO Gabriel five minutes before blowing the Last Trump.

Has any of it had very much to do with actually improving the game?  No, not really.  It has been about 'balance,' encouraged by market research telling the designers that people weren't buying the game because they didn't feel they were the strongest player at the table, and about 'realism,' as though in some way rolling one kind of die makes a game more realistic than rolling a bunch of different dice.  I remember downloading a host of 3.0 and 3.5 'rulebooks,' reboots of handbooks and more, each one of them filled with a mess of weapons, a mess of spells, a mess of skills ... and a few scene descriptions and a few pages of exposition to justify this book having a different title than that book.  This went on, and on, and on, until sales dropped off, when it was necessary to produce 4e, a version where the Wheel was so freaking BIG it blotted out the entire landscape of the game.  It was hoped that players wouldn't notice.

Most young players did not.

And this last decade, of course, has drummed up a cacophony of cheap, low-budget remakes and designs that purport - somehow, on a budget of a few hundred dollars - to produce a gaming experience that millions of dollars cannot.  A claim that is admittedly ambitious, impressive and mocking, all at once.  After all, if James Raggi can choke out a game as 'brilliant' as anything TSR or WOTC produced, why is the D&D division at WOTC not just four overworked Finns with an office temp who's job it is to write a blog about what's on sale today?  Or as of five minutes ago?

Sorry, it's only that having read a wide variety of reviews on the game, and comparing those with my own experience, it seems like an reasonable competent do-over of shit I've seen a thousand times already.  The reviews seem to be filled with the word 'good' used over and over again in reference to various nouns, but quite lacking in any real content.  This has also been my experience with White Wolf, Swords & Wizardry, Pathfinder and so on.  People who like Pathfinder really, really like Pathfinder ... I just can't seem to find out why it's so different or special.  Like people who, back in far off days, played Rolemaster, Tunnels & Trolls or Chivalry & Sorcery.  They had different mechanics, but where the rubber met the road, the game was the same.

The thing about a wheel, by itself it's fairly useless.  It's a round, flat thing.  The trick is to make a groove in it so it can be used with rope to make a pulley, or fitted with an axle and another wheel, so a cart can be built atop it.  Making another wheel of a different wood, just so it can sit on the same bit of grass doing nothing, isn't very impressive.  The game isn't great because of the mechanics.  The game has NEVER been great because of the mechanics.  Fit another set of mechanics, and it's still the same game.  Call it another name, it is still the same game.  Walk, amble, shuffle, prance, strut, stagger ... what matters is that we're going somewhere.

But the wheel is a lot easier to make than the cart that fits on top of it.  The animal-powered cart is nothing compared to the steam engine, that turns the wheel without a horse.  Steam is nothing compared to electricity.  The people redesigning the game on their blogs, however, have no interest in domesticating an animal, or inventing steam or electricity.  They have a new wheel.  They'd like to tell you about it.

WOTC is no different.  That is why I said earlier today that real change is going to come from people who don't play D&D.  They have nothing invested in re-inventing the thing that's been re-invented before in a whole new re-invented way.  They're actually interested in a new idea.

The Community is not.  This is plainly evident from the third vast landscape of written content:

The Pin.  Specifically, the number of angels on it.

There are those I've seen who have argued that all this argument about what this word means or what that word means is an eventual process to finding a final answer to the mysteries that surround the game.  If we could finally define, once and for all, just exactly what is meant by 'simulation,' we could move forward, having a clear and cognizant comprehension of what other people mean when they describe themselves as simulationists, thereby saving us HUGE amounts of time when they explain what sort of game they play, and how best to play it.

This is an interesting supposition.

All that I have written in this post ... indeed, all that I have written on this blog, is subject to interpretation.  All that has been accomplished by all human beings, everywhere, equally so.  The fact that something is subject to interpretation, however, does not in itself compel as much.  It is a peculiar mindset that demands that every position be viewed from every angle before a judgement can be made about anything - and so goes the Internet.

Forget if I am right or wrong.  We can presume I'm wrong, it makes no matter.  The bigger issue is not in whether anything I've written is true, but in whether or not the GAME you wish to play is dependent upon the 'validity' of anything I happen to say.  Not your general emotion, mind, or the resentment you may have for me, or the visceral love you have for your D&D stuff or your D&D version.  I ask about the game.  Does it need any of this?  Has the endless, endless, endless dialogue about this or that actually improved your play, or has it merely been something that fills your time as a placeholder because you cannot actually play D&D right now?

In the larger sense, is not all this blogging and boarding a sort of cheap, fetishistic porn, to carry you through the day and the week, or even longer, until you can at last sit down at a table again.  And if that is so - and I know that it is, even if the gentle reader does not - then what has long exposure wrought upon you as a player.  Or as a DM?  Has it improved you.  Has it tempered you, informed you, compelled you to greater achievement ... or has it merely given you the opportunity to wallow corpulently in the fetid waters of self-congratulation and easy, cheap stimulation, allowing your eyes to mist over happily in the company of others just like you, who approve of your gaming habits and make you feel warm and happy, knowing how these others approve of you?

Are you able at all to judge the difference?

Have you any perspective left?  Or are you so bent upon chasing after the approval of your peers, now that you have found them, and now that you can read them and give them feedback, and get feedback in return, that you're just an addict getting your fix between your morning pee and your last minute pillow fluffing.  How much do you play compared to the time you spend talking about playing?  How much design do you produce compared to how much you talk about your design, or your desires to design?

Again, have you even thought about that?

It must seem worth it to add one more comment on a bulletin board, rushing out another 800, 900 words, to make your point even clearer than you've already made it, to say the same thing again in the hopes that this time, they'll get it.  It must be, else why would you go on doing it, day after day, except for the thrill of it all.

Is the game your game, or is THIS your game?  Are you sure you even care about D&D?  Perhaps all you care about is interaction, approval, the sense of your own importance in the eyes of other people.  Perhaps you could give up the game, if only no one asked you to give up talking about the game.

In case it has been missed, this is the state of D&D.  This is where it has arrived.  Hens clucking over eggs laid, their color and their uniqueness, as loud and as long as they dare to cackle before another hen pecks at them.  The Company, the Net and the Participants have succeeded in building a social network, a very extensive one, but have they created a greater and better game?

I await evidence.


Jay Murphy said...

"Has the endless, endless, endless dialogue about this or that actually improved your play..."

I find your perspective on the game incredibly accurate and useful. Reinvigorated my interest in the Play of the Game. Keep it up.

Nine-toes said...

To me the name 'D&D' is kind of like the name 'Kleenex'. When I ask for a Kleenex, I don't actually care what brand it is. I just want to blow my nose.

You say there's an amorphous ill-defined concept for D&D that most people have. I suppose that may be true. There may still be a common reference, even if no one using it knows exactly what it is that they are referring. Two savages may discuss the beauty of the moon without understanding that it rotates around the earth and does not actually rise and fall beyond the horizon each day. Geese don't need a compass to know what direction South is.

I'm not sure what I'm arguing, or if I'm arguing with you at all. It certainly doesn't feel like an argument, or if it is I'm doing quite badly since you don't respond to me. I doubt you've suddenly had an epiphany after 30+ years of playing that D&D is useless. You're challenging your readers, yes? What poor sport we must always seem. I'm surprised you haven't tired of that game. Or perhaps to you, the windmills of apathy and ignorance really are giants, and you never will stop jousting.

I'll give you an honest answer. If you want to address real life problems, I think you're playing with the wrong tool set. I don't think you'll fix a stain-glass wall with your hammer. What is it you really want? You want Americans to wake up, take responsibility for their own actions, set their affairs in order and stop bullying other nations? There's only been one man in history with the integrity to reject the trappings of power and do justice in the world. He's worn many faces, but he's exceedingly rare this day and age. He doesn't have time for games, no matter how intricate or wonderful they may be.

I've loved reading your blog and playing in your world. If you are building up to an exit, I wish you well, truly. Actually, I wish you well whether you're quitting or not.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Sorry if I haven't responded, Nine-toes. Trying to give you the last word on the subjects you choose.

Let's not mix up topics. What I want America to do has nothing with what I want from D&D.

Yes, let us agree that I joust. The tilting is not a game. It is life. As long as you return, as long as you read, I will educate you, with or without your will.

I am not exiting D&D. Far from it.

I am attempting to force the reader not to examine me, but to examine themselves. Why do you keep all that shit while pronouncing it is the GAME that draws you. Is it the game or the shit? If it is the game, they why buy more shit? If it is the shit, then why do you think having more improves the game?

If a player dumps a hundred dice on the table, are the dice for the game, or are they for the fetish they're obsessed with instead of the game? And if it is the fetish, what does that say about their REAL purpose there? Do the number of dice improve the game? Does the game justify the fetish for dice?

Apply the formula to reading blogs, to arguing in blogs, to attending Cons, and on and on. Don't look at me, look at yourself, and BE TRUE to yourself. Then free yourself of the shit and concentrate on what really matters. We, most of us, spend too much of our lives concentrating only on what seems to matter.

Don't be so damn sure you understand everything about why you do what you do. That is the windmill I tilt today.

Issara Booncharoen said...

When I read about the way you saw people hoarding dragon magazine, I (not being from that generation) immediately thought of this blog, yes I read other roleplahying blogs to pass the time but less and less now I have come to realise I take from it. Aswell as keeping up to date with your blog, I refer to it in the way you described people refering to the dragon magazine.

So you've inspired my first steps into DMing. And I've never been under the impression that I'm making anything new, I've just started, if I am still roleplaying ten years from now I will probably laugh at all the mistakes I've made in the meantime. But truth be told, if ten year older me met you, and if I opened my mouth about the thing I was continueing the build you would still see it at a poor imitation with a few modifications tacked on. That's what it is, no matter how often I make adjustments based on my personal vision, the seed of that vision is yours and any mistakes I make you will probably have already seen. You are the blueprint for my DMing just as you claim Dragon Magazine and all the supplementary books for whatever system are for others. I'm not sure whether that's negative, it's just a thing.

As for talking about it, I don't update any blogs. I talk personally with those who might be players about the philosophy behind the game so they know what might be expected. I'm still shy about it otherwise because it's obviously a mad project and I've not had a long enough term campaign to prove to myself and others that it's worthwhile.

Since I haven't discovered this yet, I guess it's the shit that draws me the way I'm going, it just so happens that the shit happens to have been predominately produced by you, oh and a couple of GURPs books, but in terms of time invested your blog is the major influence.

JD said...

Let me start with saying, this is the first daoist argument you're making that I'm aware of. Loose all sentiment and get a perspective about yourself (at least that's my interpretation, I'm sure you'll correct me if I'm not getting it right). It's hard to argue against that. Or human nature. Even writing "But it helped me to be a better DM!" would be pointless, because saying isn't proving anything. So it is a tough nut to crack. And I'm not saying you're right. I'm even disagreeing. Also, this will be a long one. Sorry.

The first point I think you went wrong, was in stating that the corporate version of D&D matters (or mattered at any point in time, at that). D&D is, in my opinion, an idea with relatively clear parameters, like, say, a table. Ask two different people what a table is and you will get two fitting (but individual) descriptions that would define a table. So how people understand that idea is subjective and depends on their entry point into the hobby/carpentry and their exposure to it. Their perspective, if you will. And there is value in that. Not because it's all true or right, but because communication gives at least the chance of learning something new. And key to making any use of communication is not necessarily to understand, but to get another perspective to what you perceive as your own opinion. With time, it will change you. with luck, it will evolve your position. And that's a process that has to start anew constantly, because different individuals have different entry points and stages of development.

So this is the second point I think you went wrong: it's not reinventing the wheel, it's individuals trying to understand it. Of course there are those that stop developing at some point. But even in that is some value. It preserves a perspective, making access so much easier in the process. Grognardia is a very good example for this, I guess. But the same goes for books, as they mirror the perspective of a specific individual at a specific point in time.

Which leads to what you wrote about the community. I see the community as a chance. That's why I'm participating. I'll write my own version of D&D and I'll make my own mistakes. I'll keep writing about it, talk with people about it. And hopefully, I'll learn from it, too. Or give someone a new perspective he/she can process for their own good.

And finally about keeping books or sorting them out. Reading something produces a personal relation to the content. But, to a degree, that's only valid for some time. People do change, so even if the content in a book never changes, your perspective might. The chance not only to re-evaluate the content, but also your own thinking and understanding back then, is, in my opinion, a worthwhile lesson (if the opportunity is used, that is).

Furthermore, asking the wrong question will result in wrong answers. Of course nobody knows if they'll play D&D forever and ever. My answer would be that D&D is a part of my life and will always be that. How that part manifests is not for me to say. But it's the answer to a different question.

My two cents, of course.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I wish you the best of luck with all your efforts, Issara. I wouldn't worry about your present efforts ... it is a game, after all, and so long as it's enthusiastic and fulfilling, you're gold.

Issara Booncharoen said...

If I thought it was worthless I wouldn't do it. This doesn't stop it from being derivative and it certainly doesn't stop it from looking stupid from the perspective of ten years in the future. If there's one thing to take away from your blog is that the game can always be improved, given effort.

In the meantime I'm enjoying myself, and it seems like th eplayers are getting something.

JB said...

Soul-searching is a good thing...and I think this post is a good kickstart to do that.

My most recent publication was exactly what you describe: a reinvention of the wheel. I'm not under any delusions about that. But the act of creation was a direct response to D&D Next: it was done in part to show ANYONE can "reinvent D&D," on a whim, with minor word processing skills...there's no need to wait around on WotC and give them your money. It was kind of a "fuck you" aimed at Hasbro...a waste of time and effort? Yeah, probably...but people do all sorts of petty things for dumber reasons.

The exercise turned out to be valuable in a couple-few ways: deconstructing the game gave me some design insights, forced me to examine my own thoughts on the game, gave me practice writing, and improved my discipline in following-through and completing projects. Hopefully these things will help future endeavors. If not, much of the process was still fun.

And, yes, there's some ego self-stroking that occurs when one can claim "hey, I'm a game designer." And I DO use my old notes and books and magazines for reference and inspiration...both in writing and in-play (at the table). I enjoy repurposing old stuff in new systems, but maybe I'm just weird (in addition to being a sentimental packrat).

Having said THAT, much of what you write has a ring of truth to it...but then I've been accused of cynicism before. People are still designing and buying and playing board games, after all, when folks might have thought those dinosaurs would have disappeared with the invention of XBoxes and networked computer games.

Alexis Smolensk said...

"Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards."

-- Robert A. Heinlein

Mandy Oviatt said...

It really is amazing what we can learn from RPGs, especially D&D.
RPGs have taught me to be a critical thinker and a better writer than I had ever been prior to gaming.
No, I don't play D&D, but I respect it.

Jack Mack said...

"designs that purport - somehow, on a budget of a few hundred dollars - to produce a gaming experience that millions of dollars cannot."

One guy is paid a hundred dollars for a book, another is paid a million. There is no reason to believe that the millionaire will write a better story. Poe died a pauper, Stephanie Myer's rich. You know all this already.

Jim made a thing, other people used it in their game and enjoyed it. What more do you want from the D&D community? What else are we meant to be trying to accomplish? What will this steam engine give us?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Well, gee, I don't know, Jack.

What was steam before it had been, you know, invented?